Small Steps Towards Engineered, Hyperefficient, Artificial Immune Systems

Scientists are making real inroads into replicating and controlling the cells and mechanisms of our immune system. Producing immune cells, directing their actions, deciphering the biochemistry of pathogens - all these pieces are waiting to be put together as a bioartificial immune system, many times more selective, efficient and resistant to damage than the basic version we're all equipped with. For added effect, it will also slay cancer cells and degrade the buildup of dangerous compounds, such as the amyloid beta associated with Alzheimer's disease.

A large component of age-related frailty stems from decline and malfunction in the immune system - chronic inflammation and loss of function due to overpopulation of memory cells are at the top of the list. But what if your immune system were augmented, pruned, and more controlled? Recurring viruses like CMV dealt with without the resulting bloat of useless memory cells; artificial antigens released as need to vastly improve defenses against invaders; a library of antigens kept in waiting, as large as you need, so that no new invader catches you unaware; hyperefficient destruction of known cancer cell types long before they can become a threat. The list goes on. The present problems of immune system aging could be eliminated, and the immune system made vastly more powerful, by the technologies just one or two steps down the road from what is taking place in laboratories and clinical trials today.

Here's one example of present groundwork:

researchers describe a method that can identify and clone human antibodies specifically tailored to fight infections. The new technology holds the potential to quickly and effectively create new treatments for influenza and a variety of other communicable diseases.

When an infection invades, the immune system goes to work manufacturing antibodies to fight it. Most of the antibodies created will have no effect, but a very few will bond to the invader and replicate to neutralize the enemy.

The new process develops a "smart bomb" for the immune system, using fully human monoclonal antibodies specifically designed to fight the infection without doing any harm to the body.


"We can recognize which cells are made and then make antibodies from them directly," Wilson said. "It's a rapid and efficient way to make fully human antibodies."

The key to a superhumanly quick response to pathogens is access to an evolving library of ready-made antibodies. One might imagine the future providers of immune system technology looking a lot like today's providers of anti-virus software for your computers, harvesting information on potential infections and streaming update information to bioartificial antibody manufactories in your bloodstream.

All of this isn't so far away. With the underlying technology in hand, it only takes a decade to build an information and delivery infrastructure like the one I've described above, and I can't imagine it taking more than two decades to complete and commercialize the presently nascent science. The only thing really holding us back is the ball and chain of oppressive regulation in the medical development field.

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